Movement 1: Allegro assai
Movement 2: Andante con moto
Movement 3: Allegro ma non troppo
The ‘Appassionata’ (the title was added by the publisher Cranz when a version for piano duet was issued in 1838) was Beethoven’s own favourite piano sonata until he wrote his Op 106. In 1803 he had been given an Erard piano which had an extended range of five-and-a-half octaves, and he uses this at the very beginning of the piece, going down to the lowest note available—the bottom F. Nowadays it can seem all too commonplace. Given the energy and force that Beethoven was by then putting into his works, it is not surprising that the instrument was worn out by 1810. Czerny calls this sonata ‘the most perfect execution of a mighty and colossal plan’, and advises the player to observe strict time, except where marked. Tovey, saying that no piano work of Beethoven has suffered more from that vile thing known as pianistic ‘tradition’, also urges us to trust Beethoven and play what he writes. There are numerous places where we are used to hearing dynamics that are simply not there, or tempo changes that are not indicated at all. The extremes of the piano are used to great effect—for example at the recapitulation when the left hand quietly drums out the low repeated C (which must be done without changing fingers to get the best effect). The ‘fate’ motive made famous in his Fifth Symphony is everywhere, contrasting with the second subject which has that wonderful Beethovenian warmth and expansiveness.
Instead of a proper slow movement, Beethoven doesn’t delay the action more than necessary, giving us a set of variations on a drastically simple theme (in fact it is no ‘theme’ at all, but rather a series of chords). The tempo of Andante con moto is another marking that is frequently ignored. Abruptly interrupting this extemporization comes a crashing diminished-seventh chord, announcing one of his greatest examples of keyboard writing, the final Allegro ma non troppo. Ferdinand Ries, a student of Beethoven and one of his biographers, relates how this movement came about. Ries went for a lesson and found Beethoven working something out at the piano, but seeing that it was a nice day they decided to go out for a walk instead. On the mountain slopes Ries suddenly heard a shawm playing a beautiful melody; he called attention to it, but Beethoven couldn’t hear anything. For many hours he was preoccupied with his own thoughts, humming out phrases and singing aloud. When they returned home Beethoven immediately sat down at the piano and played what later became the last movement of the ‘Appassionata’. The most remarkable thing about this movement is how much of the power is held back until the very end when all is unleashed. Czerny imagines ‘the waves of the sea on a stormy night, whilst cries of distress are heard from afar’. Perhaps it is not necessary to be quite so graphic, but the two-note sighing figures do certainly give that impression. Nobody had written anything nearly as powerful for solo piano before that, and it remains to this day a landmark in musical history.
from notes by Angela Hewitt © 2006